By Paul McMahon
Agriculture seldom makes headlines and when it does, it struggles to sustain its high profile. It is easy to forget that all development is founded on agriculture and the success of nations depends on food security: as Paul McMahon writes in Feeding frenzy, there would have been no pyramids without full granaries. Yet despite clear signs that global food production and distribution is teetering on the edge of crisis, attention is directed to other priorities.
McMahon sets the scene with a review of the history of the global food system and the underlying causes of the recent turmoil in food markets. Much of this will be familiar ground for New Agriculturist readers but worth reading for the lively if astringent analysis. He concludes that the world could feed 8 billion or more without awaiting silver bullets from genetic modification and miracle seeds. It’s just that: “So far we have spectacularly failed to construct a just global food system – this is why one in eight people go hungry while one in five is overweight.”
McMahon has travelled widely and authored major reports on sustainable food systems for the FAO. He is also an advisor to The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit. He believes that sub-Saharan Africa is Ground Zero for many of the food production challenges discussed in this book but goes on to write, “Sub-Saharan Africa has enormous potential to increase production with more than 750 million hectares of suitable land that could be brought into production and the potential to triple yields.”
The author is convinced that the answer lies in two major themes: “The first is the need to help small farmers in poor countries produce more food. The second theme is the importance of switching to agro-ecological farming systems that use fewer non-renewable resources, pollute less, and enhance the fertility of the land, while still producing sufficient quantities of food.” McMahon quotes several independent studies that prove that production on small farms can exceed that from large scale cultivation and that a judicious mix of organic and industrial inputs can be both more affordable and more productive than sole reliance on agrochemicals.
He describes the successes of China and Vietnam, as well as pointing to other examples of modified water, pasture and pest management that have resulted in dramatic increases of food production in Africa and Latin America, including that of rice in Madagascar.
McMahon also addresses marketing, distribution, availability of credit and the need for both international traders and governments to adjust their priorities and practices. He concludes that, “The good news is that if we can get through the next few decades some of the pressures will ease.” Getting though the next few decades will require adjustments to climate change and water scarcity, as well as social unrest. But confronting and tackling these issues is no longer an option but an imperative, and McMahon holds out the incentive that, “Building a vibrant agricultural sector can kick-start a virtuous cycle of development that leads to prosperity all round.”